The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse: G8 Corporate Power

By Glenn Ashton · 27 Jun 2012

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Picture credit: World Bank/Flickr
Picture credit: World Bank/Flickr

A dangerous international game is being played in the name of assisting Africa to feed itself. What is portrayed as charitable largesse has more in common with reinvigorating neo-colonialism than feeding Africans. This is in fact a misanthropic, multi-pronged raid by the G8 to control African commodities, land and seeds.

Africa presently occupies an interesting niche amongst the emerging, tripartite global realpolitik. First are longstanding, yet waning, relationships between Africa and its European colonial powers – Spain, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Italy and most particularly France and England. Second is the expanding post Second World War relationship between Africa and the global superpower of the USA. Thirdly there is the increasingly important influence of the rapidly emerging BRICS alliance, with South Africa posing as regional superpower along with Brazil, India and China. These three blocs often have conflicting, and conflicted, roles in the development and exploitation of Africa.

Nowhere else is this more apparent than in the field of agriculture. African agriculture remains in the doldrums, beset by twin curses. On the one hand lies its huge vulnerability to climatic variability, which will be exacerbated by climate change. On the other are the market-disrupting impacts of food subsidies amongst the developed world. These combine to render the precarious business of farming in Africa even more treacherous than it needs to be.

The past decade has seen the rise of a third threat, that of land grabs across the continent. Some emanate from corporate speculators and investors, others from nation states, particularly amongst the oil-rich but infertile Middle East, but also from the Far East, Europe and the USA. This trend has already created significant local hardships documented by watchdog groups like Grain and Action Aid. Africa has ceded an estimated 40-50 million hectares to foreign interests over the past decade or so.

Now a fourth, possibly more ominous threat has arisen. Some background: In July 2009 at the G8 meeting a L’Aquila, just north of Rome, US$ 22 billion was pledged to support and improve African agriculture over the following 3 years. Of course this is a pittance compared to the estimated $250 – $350 billion annually paid in market distorting agricultural subsidies within the OECD. However, $22 billion could at least go some way to addressing some of the profound systemic problems facing African agriculture.

The galling reality is that only around half the pledged amount was disbursed within the 3 year time frame. Worse yet, only 12% of that amount was new money which would not have been donated anyway.

Accordingly, a Faustian bargain was made at the June 2012 G8 meeting by President Obama. Instead of delivering on commitments, he changed tack and roped in a $3 billion “pledge of corporate assistance” for African Agriculture. Introducing “The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition” Obama made a hugely condescending – yet sinister – promise that corporations would somehow magically assist Africa to overcome its systemic production challenges, when the G8, the green revolution and pretty much everything else has failed to date.

To pile cynicism onto condescension Obama then warned that African nations would have to make "tough reforms" and “refine policies in order to improve investment opportunities,” in order that they could attract this investment. From an African perspective this appears indistinguishable from previous externally imposed structural adjustment policies. This looks just like neo-colonial “Change, or else,” paternalism writ large. If it quacks like a duck is it a duck?

Well, who did Obama bring to the party to save Africa? For starters we have Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and BASF, the world’s largest seed and agricultural chemical companies, all deeply involved in genetically modified crops, industrial agriculture and patenting of crops and foods, with nary a verifiably charitable bone in their collective corpus.

Surely it is cynical to reject such expertise, such seed wizardry, I hear the cynics cry? Perhaps, but we must be absolutely clear about one central issue. Private corporations have one primary goal: Profit. Everything else is secondary. Corporate largesse is predicated solely by self-interest.

This hints at why Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont subsidiary and the worlds second biggest seed company after Monsanto, was recently given the green light to purchase Africa’s largest remaining independent seed company, Pannar. This South African based seed multinational, with a presence in at least 14 African nations, as well as South America and the USA, was a rich jewel indeed.

This merger was initially rejected by the South African Competition authorities. Subsequently it was authorised by the Competition Appeals Court, after the deal was cynically sweetened to “benefit” South Africa. The result is that South Africa’s seed industry is now effectively controlled by a duopoly of two US multinationals, Monsanto and Pioneer. Pioneer openly states its wish to expand into Africa; Pannar provides the ideal framework. Who controls the seed, controls the food.

The South African Department of Agriculture bizarrely considers this merger as beneficial. Yet this is understandable when contemplating this department’s remarkable ineptitude in addressing national food security. Instead of concentrating on change they have unconditionally supported the corporate controlled, industrialised agricultural value chain, while lamenting that South African agriculture remains un-transformed.

Such naïve posturing is not the case elsewhere in Africa. Apparently anticipating Obama’s announcement of his “The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition,” a letter from a representative African farmers union, endorsed by African entrepreneurs and development experts presciently enquired, “I ask you to explain how you could possibly justify thinking that the food security and sovereignty of Africa could be secured through international cooperation outside of the policy frameworks formulated in an inclusive fashion with the peasants and the producers of the continent.” In other words, how about not imposing unilateral, imperial decrees on Africa, yet again, President Obama?

The letter continued, “This is why we must build our food policy on our own resources as is done in the other regions of the world. The G8 and the G20 can in no way be considered the appropriate fora for decisions of this nature.” But will the G8, the OECD and the corporate free-riders listen? Not bloody likely. Not when there is an entire continent up for grabs. The very agencies who decry corruption are apparently happy to facilitate it.

Is it a coincidence that the G8 corporate “sponsors” include Kraft, Intersnack and Olam (the worlds largest cashew trader), along with the worlds leading cashew processing machine manufacturer Oltremare? Surely they are just “assisting” cashew nut production in Mozambique? Self interest? Never!

That must also be why Mars, the worlds largest chocolate company, Kraft (again!) which recently bought out Cadbury and Cote D’or, along with US chocolate giant Hershey and of course the predominant international cocoa trader Armajaro are “assisting” African cocoa production. Self interest? Never!

Even cursory analysis indicates how the apparent largesse of this new G8 corporate brotherhood is little less than a $3 billion fire sale of the African agricultural market to the biggest players in the game. Most of them are already players; this “alliance” is simply a huge lever to legitimise a World Economic Forum (WEF), free-market inspired, sleight of hand trick to appear to help Africa while really helping themselves.

Surely, I hear, this is all exaggeration?

Well, no. Bunge, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland – the world’s biggest food commodity traders – consistently demonstrate predation before beneficence. Obama’s corporate cotton assistance package has all of the main cotton traders who demonstrate scant concern about how US cotton subsidies have decimated the African industry.

What about Rabobank, actively involved in land acquisitions in the ongoing African land-grab? Rabobank also has close relationships with Rothschild, Morgan Stanley and is the major shareholder in Agri-Sar, which has the “monetisation of water” as an investment goal. Surely these corporate interventions are to the benefit of African agriculture?

There can be no denial that Africa certainly requires as much agricultural assistance as it can get. Africa has the potential to provide vast variety and volumes of food. And yes, there are many good people involved in some programmes to help Africa feed itself – and the world. But to impose new, faux green revolution on top of the failed previous one is not a solution. Neither are a set of novel, corporate enforced, G8 and WEF inspired structural adjustments going to benefit Africa.

If problems with African agriculture are going to be addressed, how about starting with trade distorting OECD agricultural subsidies? Neither can USAid continue to disrupt local economies by dumping subsidised food into African markets – it must adopt the European model of purchasing local food for redistribution. Likewise European companies cannot continue to usurp vast tracts of land to grow “green” fuel to fool their consumers they are following sustainable practices.

The real problem is the intractable relationship engendered in the corporate political nexus. If nothing else, Obama has done us all a favour by alerting us to the pernicious nature of this relationship with this latest, cynical offer to assist Africa with his “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.”

The reality is that yet again Africa is being coerced to opening up its doors to exploitation portrayed as assistance. If any good is to come of this latest neo-colonial onslaught, Africa must demonstrate authoritative leadership to direct how this assistance is provided. Yet given the inherently corrupt relationship between corporations and political power, this is a slim hope. Yet again Africa stands at risk of being corrupted by a system corrupt to its very core.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at www.ekogaia.org.

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